As you may have guessed from previous posts, I am utterly fascinated by the social and cultural differences between the twenty-first century and the nineteenth. One would expect these things to be more clear when reading Austen’s works, but she could have had no way of predicting how society would change, so she couldn’t possibly have anticipated what future generations didn’t know, not to mention that she probably didn’t have any clue that we would still be reading what she wrote hundreds of years later.
Upon my first reading of Pride and Prejudice, I took note of how caught up in physical appearance they were. Mrs. Bennet leads the way with her repeated proclamations of Jane’s beauty and Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst take it upon themselves to dissect the beauty and fashion of the Hertfordshire society. Similar themes are to be found throughout Austen’s works. This is hardly surprising; it’s human nature, after all. We all have an inherent preference for that which is beautiful. Pleasing shapes, proportions and colors quite naturally draw positive attention; so none of the obvious awareness of physical appearance surprised me.
Jane painted with broad strokes however, and our suppositions based on our own experiences fill in the rest. For example, the physical description of Darcy provided by Jane Austen only tells us that he is tall. The conversation between Mrs. Gardiner, Mrs. Reynolds and Elizabeth in Chapter 43 of Pride and Prejudice also inform us that he is handsome. Since the name “Darcy” literally means “dark” or “dark one,” we might additionally add coloring to the mix and conclude that Mr. Darcy is “tall, dark and handsome.”
It took me awhile to realize those same broad strokes included some negative spaces — information that was missing because Jane simply had no way of knowing that it wouldn’t be obvious to us. So here it is: despite all the attention paid to fashion, hairstyles and symmetry of features, people simply didn’t compliment each other. Not verbally anyway, and certainly not outside the family circle. One’s sister or mother might note that you look very well, but although he raved about her beauty behind her back, Mr. Bingley never said to Jane, “You look quite angelic tonight my dear.”
Eventually, as I began to research, I came to understand that during the Regency era, to flatter or overtly admire a person was a serious social blunder. Compliments were paid, instead, by showing your approval through behavior and social acknowledgement. Invitations to dinners were reciprocal, as were morning calls and correspondence. Inquiring after the health and well-being of a person’s family was an attention that was perceived as complimentary, as was sending your regards or asking for an introduction.
When Lady Catherine came to Longbourn for the smack-down with Lizzy, she went through a series of anti-compliments. As the highest ranking woman in the room, even though it was the Bennet household, it was Lady Catherine’s prerogative to request an introduction to Mrs. Bennet, which she did not do. Through this awkwardness, Mrs. Bennet, was unfailingly polite and offered refreshments, with Lady Catherine rudely refused. She proceeded to criticize the house before she isolated and verbally abused Elizabeth. Her visit was concluded with this parting shot: “I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.”
What an odd thing to say. “I send no compliments to your mother.” That was the point, however. Not only did Lady Catherine send no compliments to Mrs. Bennet, which would have been the gracious thing to do, but she made certain it was understood that it was no mere oversight. She didn’t want there to be any misunderstanding that her visit was anything other than an insult.
Caroline Bingley, on the other hand, takes the liberty of a relation when she praises Darcy’s speed of writing. That Darcy rebuffed the compliment by denying its truth is illustrative of another virtue of the day. Modesty, when it came to one’s accomplishments was the expected response. This also explains why Elizabeth declares that she is not possessed of “false modesty” when it comes to her skills on the pianoforte. “False modesty” would be an all too common problem among her peers.
Austen does a fantastic job of using the compliment as a means to expose those who fail to understand the nuances of social graces, are insincere or are prone to flattery. Now that I understand the significance of explicitly stated compliments during that era, I take great enjoyment in being in on the joke. My favorite examples include Sir William’s exclamations over Elizabeth and Darcy’s skills on the dance floor, Mr. Collins’ boasting about composing compliments and Caroline Bingley’s fawning over Darcy.
Although it is no longer a social blunder to render an honest compliment, it can still be awkward to be on the receiving end. In such situations as these, we can learn a little something from Elizabeth Bennet and other Austen heroines. A simple thank you will generally suffice if there is nothing else to be said.
If you made it this far today the fact that you spent a few minutes of your time to read it is a compliment. If, you take a moment to share your thoughts on the topic, it is a great compliment. In return, I thank you and send my compliments to your mother.